Viking Trading and Exchange Networks - Economics of the Norse

What Kinds of Commercial Goods Supported the Viking Society?

Fish Drying on Racks in Nordland County Norway
Fish Drying on Racks in Nordland County Norway. Christophe Boisvieux / hemis.fr / Getty Images

The Viking trade network included trading relationships into Europe and Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire; and into Asia and the Islamic Abbasid empire. This is evidenced by the identification of items such as coins from North Africa recovered from a site in central Sweden, and Scandinavian brooches from sites east of the Ural Mountains. Trade was a key feature of the Norse Atlantic communities throughout their history, and a way for the colonies to support their use of landnam, a sometime unreliable farming technique for environments the Norse didn't quite understand.

Documentary evidence indicates that there were several groups of specific people who traveled between the Viking trading centers and other centers throughout Europe, as envoys, merchants or missionaries. Some travelers, such as the Carolingian missionary bishop Anskar (801-865) left extensive reports of their travels, giving us great insight to traders and their clients.

Viking Trade Commodities

The Norse traded commodities included slaves, but also coins, ceramics, and materials from specialized crafts such as copper-alloy casting and glass-working (beads and vessels both). The access to some commodities could make or break a colony: Greenland's Norse relied on trade in walrus and narwhal ivory and polar bear skins to support their ultimately failing farming strategies.

Metallurgical analysis at Hrisbru in Iceland indicates that the elite Norse traded in bronze objects and raw material from the tin-rich regions in Britain.

A significant trade in dried fish emerged near the end of 10th century AD in Norway. There, cod played a major role in Viking trade, when commercial fishing and sophisticated drying techniques allowed them to expand the market throughout Europe.

Trade Centers

In the Viking homeland, major trading centers included Ribe, Kaupang, Birka, Ahus, Truso, Grop Stromkendorf and Hedeby.

Goods were brought to these centers and then dispersed into the Viking society. Many of these site assemblages include an abundance of a soft yellow earthenware called Badorf-ware, produced in the Rhineland; Sindbæk has argued that these items, rarely found on non-trading communities, were used as containers to bring goods to places, rather than as trade items.

In 2013, Grupe et al. conducted stable isotope analysis of skeletal material at the Viking trade center of Haithabu (later Schleswig) in Denmark. They found that the diet of the individuals expressed in the human bones reflected the relative significance of trade over time. Members of the earlier community showed a predominance of freshwater fish (cod imported from the North Atlantic) in their diet, while later residents shifted to a diet of terrestrial domestic animals (local farming).

Norse-Inuit Trade

There's some evidence in the Viking Sagas that trade played a role in the North American contact between the Norse and the Inuit occupants. In addition, Norse symbolic and utilitarian objects are found at Inuit sites, and similar Inuit objects in Norse sites. There are fewer Inuit objects in Norse sites, a fact which may be because the trade goods were organic, or that some Inuit prestige items were exported by the Norse into the wider European trade network.

Evidence at the site of Sandhavn in Greenland seems to suggest that the quite rare co-existence of Inuit and Norse there was a result of the opportunity to trade with one another. Ancient DNA evidence from the Farm Beneath the Sand (GUS) site, also in Greenland, however, finds no support for the trade of bison robes, posited earlier on the basis of morphological examination.

Viking and Islamic Trade Connections

In a 1989 study of formal weights discovered at the Viking site of Paviken in Gotland near Vastergarn, Sweden, Erik Sperber reported three main types of trading weights in use:

  • ball-shaped weights of iron clad with a layer of bronze or solid bronze; these vary between 4 and 200 gm
  • Cubo-octaedric weights of lead bronze, tin bronze or brass; up to 4.2 grams
  • Leaden weights of different shapes and sizes

    Sperber believes at least some of these weights conform to the Islamic system of the Ummayyad dynasty leader Abd' al Malik. The system, established in 696/697, is based on the dirhem of 2.83 grams and the mitqa of 2.245 grams. Given the breadth of Viking trade, it is likely that several trade systems may have been utilized by the Vikings and their partners.

    Sources

    This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Viking Age and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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    Sinding M-HS, Arneborg J, Nyegaard G, and Gilbert MTP. 2015. Ancient DNA unravels the truth behind the controversial GUS Greenlandic Norse fur samples: the bison was a horse, and the muskox and bears were goats. Journal of Archaeological Science 53:297-303.

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    Wärmländer SKTS, Zori D, Byock J, and Scott DA. 2010. Metallurgical findings from a Viking Age chieftain’s farm in Iceland. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(9):2284-2290.